When the first wireless networking products hit the market twenty years ago, the idea of enterprise mobility was in its infancy. Even ten years ago, with a rapidly maturing market, most companies considered WLAN a convenience, rather than a mission-critical network. That's no longer the case. Mobility and WLAN are now vital to the enterprise.
WLAN market trends and the 802.11ac future
WLANs now pervade enterprises (as well as many businesses and homes, and some cities), with many considering them as replacements for wired networks. In the enterprise, mobility, BYOD, and the consumerization of IT drive the WLAN trend even as they pose challenges to existing WiFi architectures. Employee devices on enterprise networks demand ever greater security, scalability, and reliability; to meet that demand, WiFi products continue to evolve at a rapid rate.
In February 2013, the Dell'Oro Group released a market report forecasting overall wireless LAN market revenue to exceed $11 billion in 2017, a nearly 50 percent increase over 2012 revenues. Emerging trends expected to drive this growth include deployment of Service Provider WiFi (SP WiFi), enterprise mobile applications, cloud-managed WLAN, consumer video over WiFi, BYOD, and the 802.11ac upgrade cycle.
This last is particularly vital. The 802.11n standard introduced higher throughput, better interference reduction, and improved reliability and availability. Now the 802.11ac standard is almost upon us, with most vendors expecting to launch products throughout 2013. 802.11ac promises speed up to 1 Gbps, making it a more-than-viable alternative to wired, switched networks.
This speed will challenge current architectures in much the same way that the migration from 10 or 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps wired networks did. Pushing the limits of performance at the network edge creates the possibility of bottlenecks as dozens of devices run at hundreds of megabits per second at each access point and also roam between access points. While current 802.11n solutions work great in a 1 Gbps wired environment, 802.11ac will demand a 10 Gbps—or higher—switched backbone. And it won't stop there. Some vendors have already announced products to boost maximum data rates as high as 5-7 Gbps for 802.11ac; these will likely appear by late 2014 or early 2015.
It's not just about throughput, though. 802.11ac promises to allow for growth by using more efficient encoding, servicing multiple clients simultaneously, focusing on less cluttered 5-GHz channels, doubling or quadrupling channel widths, and doubling maximum spatial streams. Multiuser multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) allows 802.11ac APs to simultaneously service up to four devices at once. It's easy to see how this will create demand for high-speed enterprise backbone networks.
Top WLAN solution choices
As the performance gap between wired and wireless networks diminishes and products mature, vendors are adding features focused on management, security, and guest access. Many WLAN solutions also include integrated management of wired and wireless functionality. This simplifies management and provides for greater consistency in policy between wired and wireless networks. More and more features come bundled into access points or wireless controllers, with either hardware or software and centralized or distributed controllers. This creates a large range of prices and features for current 802.11n APs, from two-radio, low-feature units costing around $500, up to four-radio, feature-packed APs costing several thousand dollars.
AP and wireless controller features now focus on improving security and simplifying the end user experience. Many of the most sophisticated APs, such as those available from Motorola, Aerohive, and Cisco, offer solutions to ease the planning, managing, and securing of wireless networks. For example, Aerohive’s Bonjour Gateway and cooperative control architecture eliminate the need for a dedicated centralized controller. This creates a controllerless, meshed architecture, while also providing for security, guest access, network management, policy enforcement, client remediation, and a stateful firewall. In addition, these network services can live within the access points or in the cloud, offering more features and greater flexibility.
Fortinet offers UTMs, switches, and controller-based wireless architecture via its FortiAP line or as a standalone appliance with its FortiWiFi. According to John Maddison, Fortinet's VP of marketing, “Fortinet is focused on a distributed enterprise where consolidation of wireless infrastructure is taking place and there is a need to enhance security. We took a UTM with all of its security features and integrated a wireless controller, which can control up to 30 APs.” A single interface and device creates and enforces all security policies for both wired and wireless networks. Security services include authentication, firewall, intrusion prevention, anti-malware, and application control. Guest access, traffic segmentation, and backup/offload to 4G/LTE networks round out the feature set.
Aruba Networks takes a modular, scalable approach. Customers can choose to deploy their WLANs with or without controllers, or start with a few APs and add a Mobility Controller to centrally manage encryption, security policy and enforcement, and network services as they grow. If a customer starts with just APs, one AP is dynamically elected to manage the others. Aruba provides application-based management, QoS, and their Adaptive Radio Management technology, which optimizes performance in high-density environments by making sure that each device uses the best channel, frequency, band, and AP. In BYOD environments, Aruba relies on an integrated ICSA-certified firewall to identify users, devices, applications, locations, and times of day and then uses this contextual information to enforce access policies.
Upstart Ruckus Wireless offers indoor and outdoor dual band APs with centralized management. APs can be connected directly to the wired network or via a meshed architecture. Ruckus ZoneDirector 3000 centrally manages up to 500 802.11g or 802.11n APs, with support for authentication, traffic management, load balancing, and user access policies. The company provides an innovative Linux-based software, FlexMaster Management System, that allows administrators and service providers to plan, configure, optimize, control, monitor, audit, and upgrade up to hundreds of thousands of enterprise and carrier-class APs remotely.
In the past three years, we’ve seen WLANs dramatically evolve for better management, control, bandwidth, and range. We’ve gone from standalone access points connected to an Ethernet backbone to architectures that rely on centralized control and management. As you look to deploy or upgrade your WLAN network, make sure your choice is one that can handle not only your enterprise's needs today, but the ever greater demands of tomorrow.